book reviews and literary essays
Victor LaValle has a knack for colliding the mundane and the horrific in works that marry fantasy with social realism. In his last novel, The Devil in Silver, the uncanny horrors of an asylum are shown to be the product of late-capitalist decline. His latest offering, a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, continues this journey into darkness with a “love letter-slash-rebuke” to H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of a particular brand of dark fantasy, and an author who is enjoying a kind of revival that remembers his work while reviling his racism.
The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook.” While absent Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, “The Horror at Red Hook” features vague glimpses of supernatural horrors, “half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” But these supernatural horrors are clearly symbols for Lovecraft’s more mundane terrors: the increasingly diverse inhabitants of New York. Red Hook’s real horror, for Lovecraft, “is a babel of sound and filth,” a population that is “a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.” This supernatural horror as allegory for virulent racism is what has increasingly tarnished Lovecraft’s legacy, and what makes LaValle’s rebuke so sharp.
Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1986, 2011), describes a brothel peopled by female automata,
Each was as circumscribed as a figure in rhetoric and you could not imagine they had names, for they had been reduced by the rigorous discipline of their vocation to the undifferentiated essence of the idea of the female. This ideational femaleness took amazingly different shapes though its nature was not that of Woman. What is “ideational,” here—that is, present in thought but absent from view—is the essence of “woman.”
The fictive nature of femininity, a nature which gets revised in different times and places, is a theme in Julie Wosk’s My Fair Ladies. But for Wosk, as for Carter, what is significant about that theme is that, as often as such automata appear “as circumscribed as a figure in rhetoric,” they are, just as frequently, figures for women’s escape from social constraints.
(accessible with a Women's Review of Books subscription)
Late in Brightfellow, Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, the protagonist and titular “fellow” takes two eight-year-old girls to see Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, for those readers familiar with Ducornet, the impropriety of this outing is never discussed. Rather, the children are more upset by Jimmy Stewart’s nipples than Raymond Burr’s murder and dismemberment of his wife, “Men should not have nipples!” they insist, “no one should have nipples!.”
This absurd and illogical world, here as in all of Ducornet’s novels, is not exactly magical realist — there is no intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise normal here. It is also not a postmodernist world of artifice and simulacrum. Rather, her worlds are all surface and texture.
For Sharona Muir, the bestiary is a literary genre of its own. Her novel Invisible Beasts is part anthology and part field-guide, but mostly it's the story of a young woman who sees animals nobody else can. Her experiences unfold in the form of a scientific catalog of animals.
These descriptions are sensitive and elegant. However, this book maintains a sense of polemical urgency, to which the very invisibility of the beasts it describes is a testament.
Invisible Beasts explores the development of Sophie's skills, and of her discovery of the next in her family to share this ability:
I come from a long line of naturalists and scientists going back many generations, and in each generation we have had the gift of discovering hard-to-see phenomena, from a shelled amoeba lurking between two sand grains, to the misfolded limb of a protein pointing to a genetic flaw.
On December 26, 1924, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote in his diary, "What concerns me more than all these Lyashkos is the question whether I am a real writer or not." He'd completed his early works Diaboliad and The Fatal Eggs, which met with success among his circle of friends and colleagues, but he was a few years from his position with the Moscow Art Theater, a position granted him despite the Soviet state's censorship of nearly everything he ever wrote.
In the Diaries and Selected Letters, readers will see Bulgakov become the real writer he did not yet recognize. Although this volume of the diary begins with Bulgakov's move to Moscow in the beginning of 1921, the early entries are short and abrupt. They allude coyly to more events than they actually relate. The first entry, from January 1922, begins, "Given up the diary for a bit. A pity -- there's been a lot of interesting things going on all this time." Yet gradually these short entries evolve into longer, more introspective, more lyrical meditations. By the time Bulgakov wonders whether or not he's a real writer, he's already revealed the answer.
Leo Bersani is probably most well known, among academics, for his work on sexuality. His 1987 essay, "Is the Rectum a Grave?" a polemical account of the politics of gay sex and sexuality at the peak of public hysteria and paranoid policy in response to AIDS became one of the cornerstones of the field of queer theory. Now an emeritus professor of French at Berkeley, his most recent, solo academic work, Homos, published in 1995, continued his investigation of the politics of sex (Bersani has collaborated on several subsequent volumes, primarily studies of literature and film). Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art, first published in 1965 and reissued this year by Oxford University Press, very gently invokes the focus on sexuality that characterized Bersani's later reputation -- even though Bersani's studies of literature and film continued to be expansive, never limited by whatever disciplinary perimeters the academy imposes on such studies of sexuality, psychoanalysis, or queer identity.
Astragal, originally published in France in 1965 and translated by the Paris Review's Patsy Southgate in 1967, evokes a grittier 1960s than Americans might be familiar with, a 1960s that evolved, eventually, into the revolution and revolt of 1968. Albertine Sarrazin was dead by 1968. She died in July of 1967, having just experienced the leading edge of literary fame, dead of a botched kidney surgery. The fear she expresses in Astragal, when Anne, the autobiographical heroine, is finally hospitalized for her broken ankle, a serious fracture of the astragalus bone, rings chillingly true in light of the author's tragically short, rough life. Sarrazin's novels, written during her own imprisonment, invoke lives as ill-starred and adventurous as her own. Born in Algeria, abandoned, adopted, abused, and eventually incarcerated, she was certainly no less revolutionary than her student inheritors. Anne and Sarrazin share lives of criminality and precocious intellects that, finally, can't save either. Sacrificial heroes, these wild radical girls prefigure the potential of 1968's revolutions, abandoned, like Sarrazin herself, in its nascence.
Angela Carter's second novel, The Magic Toyshop (1967) opens with a quote from Donne's Elegy 20, "O my America, my new found land." Twisting Donne's metaphor in a manner that became a signature with her, Carter turns Donne's virile eroticism into a figure for a pubescent girl's auto-erotic discovery; the novel's young protagonist is "a physiological Cortez." Yet Carter's America -- both of its continents -- was only ever "new found" in this borrowed metaphor. Carter's own writing conjures an America that is ancient, populous and strange. Her mark on British literary culture is indelible: not the least, the prize formerly known as the Orange, now the Women's Prize for Fiction, was created in part because of the sexist slight of her career-long omission from Booker shortlists. Yet besides a brief, posthumous flurry of interest in her writing, Carter's American reputation has been comparatively small. She's cultish; readers discover her as Jeanette Winterson's predecessor or encounter her revisions of fairy tales in college courses. Recently in the New York Times, Dwight Garner wondered if her Britishness had made her "too tangy and exotic to make much of an impression on American audiences."
Muireann Maguire's Red Spectres are not the spectres of Marx's Communist manifesto. Their red is not the red of the Bolsheviks. Many, although not all, are the ghosts of the dying Russian aristocracy. This sense of decayed aristocracy gives these stories something in common with their nineteenth-century Anglo-American counterparts, although that decay isn't manifested so much in spooky old houses as it is in hauntings that push the boundaries of perception and reason in the world. If these stories have an English relation, it is Frankenstein's creature, although his Russian cousins often eschew his Romantic fervor for a more exhausted, sometimes cynical, war-weary satire.
There's a long history of literary interventions in the sciences, from Coleridge, who proclaimed he "shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark," to Richard Powers's DNA-as-leitmotif in The Gold Bug Variations. Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research promises to add to this conversation, inviting scientists and "bio-ethicists" to offer comment on fourteen short fictions that consider the "far side" of bio-technological research. Bio-Punk promises not only that writers will explore scientific themes, but also that scientists will consider the ways in which literature reckons with the consequences of research.
The best stories in this collection present such consequences in scenes both profound and funny. Adam Marek's "An Industrial Evolution" follows a journalist into the Sumatran interior to visit a palm plantation. This plantation's laborers are not human; they are orangutans, the products of one conservationist's attempts to use cloning to preserve a species going extinct. Marek's anti-Heart of Darkness captures the creepy cuteness of the almost-human orangs:
Eleanor comes to life in the nursery, as soon as she sees the little ones, three of them, sat on a fleece jumper in a wooden crate together. And they are impossibly cute. Their big black eyes and their dopey wide grins. Their wild orange hair that sticks up all over the place. Their lovely fat bellies. Their comical inquisitiveness. Cute in a way that makes human babies look boring.
In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Clay, a design school graduate recently laid off from his job with a company making algorithm-based bagels, finds himself working in what he thinks is an out-of-the-way bookstore with an odd specialty: a back room of vertical shelves full of one of a kind books that Clay labels the "Waybacklist." It's a room of beautiful bound encrypted texts. "When I started working here, I assumed they were just all from tiny presses. Yes, tiny Amish presses with no taste for record keeping." The books of the Waybacklist represent the initiation rituals of a secret society. Mr. Penumbra's bookstore is a front for the Unbroken Spine, a Knights Templar of typography, minus the messianism, dedicated to solving cyphers and codes. The group's origins extend from sixteenth century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who, according to this novel, left his legacy locked in an unsolvable code.
I read Big Machine at a moment when I was really frustrated with contemporary fiction in general. I felt that fiction was doing a poor job of representing what British writer Angela Carter called the "real conditions of life," the everyday concerns of work, income, of how to make ends meet. Your work, like Carter's, seems to me to argue that those real conditions are best represented in fiction that incorporates some wildly disparate genre elements. Is there something more strategic for you about this practice?
First, I love you for bringing up Angela Carter, in any way, when talking with me. She wrote like a demon, and in her case I mean that literally. Frightening, seductive, and poking at a wealth of pieties as all good devils are meant to do. I think you're on to something about the "real conditions of life," though. It has always seemed to me that realism attempts to describe what daily life looks like while the fantastic attempts to express what daily life feels like. Getting evicted from your home -- I mean genuine court-ordered, City Marshal enforced eviction -- can feel like an episode from a piece of Gothic fiction. The reportorial aspects of realism just aren't going to capture the matter. I can't fathom how only one type of writing -- whether realism, the fantastic, romance, mystery, etc. -- can ever summarize life on its own. Using all of it -- within the same book, sometimes within the same sentence -- seems like the only sensible way to try and capture the whole spectrum of human experience. Plus, it's a hell of a lot of fun.